On Kingsman: The Golden Circle

When the first Kingsman movie burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, it came as something of a relief.   After years of gritty entries in the spy genre, courtesy of the likes of Bond and Bourne, Kingsman: The Secret Service didn’t take itself terribly seriously, poking as much fun at the genre as it could get away with, while still managing to be a strong entry in the genre anyway, which is a good trick if you can manage it.   It threw a hefty dash of My Fair Lady, delivered some impressively staged action sequences and also provided the answer to the previously unlikely question of how dramatic / rom-com stalwart Colin Firth would be at playing a Bond-like superspy and, handily, the answer proved to be “bloody spectacular”.    Despite opening against the box office juggernaut of 50 Shades of Grey, the film exceeded all expectations by a considerable margin, a sequel was rapidly greenlit and now, two years on, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is on our cinema screens.

One of the problems with following up a surprise hit is that sequels frequently struggle a bit to capture that often ill-defined property that propelled the original above expectations and it’s probably fair to say that Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t entirely live up to its predecessor.   Inevitably, it lacks the freshness that the first one had, gifted to it by the fact that we really hadn’t seen anything like it for quite a while.  Fortunately, what remains is still a great deal of fun.

The movies opens a year after the original, with a sneak attack wiping out almost all the Kingsman agents.   Activating an emergency protocol, Eggsy and Merlin travel to America, where they encounter their US counterparts, the Statesmen, along with an old friend that neither expected to see again.   After the almost obligatory rather shaky start, everybody teams up to go after the architect of the sneak attack, a drug kingpin named Poppy Adams, who intends to blackmail the governments of the world into legalising all drugs to grant her the recognition she craves.

On the whole, the movie lacks some of the focus of the original, leaving it feeling a little meandering at times and giving the movie an extended run-time that it doesn’t entirely need.    A side-trip to the Glastonbury music festival is probably the primary culprit, particularly as the events there, while certainly plot-relevant, seem to be aimed at least in part at trolling that subsection of the first movie’s audience who happily sat through massacres in churches and hundreds of heads exploding before totally losing their shit at an anal sex gag.    The movie opens and ends well, though, so a slightly saggy midsection is not the worst offence it could have committed.

Casting-wise, everybody is solid and, as with the first one, give the impression of having way too much fun to feel entirely fair that they’re also getting paid for it.   Taron Egerton plays Eggsy with a degree of swagger as befits a successful spy, but remains in touch with the character’s common roots, together with a pleasant degree of vulnerability in quieter moments that neatly undermines the common image of the invincible superspy.    Colin Firth, returning despite his character’s apparent death in the original, is as excellent as ever, giving us a less certain Harry than we saw previously as he struggles to regain his previous form after what happened to him (for the record, the detail behind his miraculous return is handled pretty well) and the role reversal between Harry and Eggsy as the younger man temporarily becomes the mentor is a nice touch.   It’s a genuine shame that the marketing department chose to make Harry’s return a key part of the publicity for the film (very much against Matthew’s Vaughn’s wishes), as it would have been a great reveal in the second act, but, regardless, it’s good to have him back.  Mark Strong is as watchable as ever and it’s nice to see him step outside the mission control role that he principally stuck to in the first.    A surprising return from the original is Hanna Alström as the Swedish princess Tilde – her relatively minor role in the first movie was essentially that of the classic “Bond Girl”, a damsel in distress who the hero gets to have fun times with at the end of the film before never seeing her again.   The Golden Circle subverts that almost entirely by giving her a much larger role as Eggsy’s girlfriend and, while she does end up in a damsel in distress situation again, decent chemistry with Egerton provides the movie with an unexpected, but pleasant degree of warmth, plus the opportunity to further subvert the whole James Bond thing when Eggsy reluctantly faces the prospect of having to sleep with a target.

Julianne Moore leads the newcomers to the franchise as primary villain Poppy, who she plays as Martha Stewart if Martha Stewart was a cannibalistic psychopath drug lord with an epic-level 50s obsession and an unhealthy fixation on Elton John (insert your own “So basically Martha Stewart” joke here).   Poppy’s totally deranged and Moore milks it for all she’s worth.   Speaking of Elton John, I honestly assumed his appearance would be no more than a brief cameo, but he’s in a surprising amount of the film as Poppy’s hilariously grumpy captive, forced to give regular performances for her and her assorted henchmen.   He’s clearly having a whale of a time and it’s really quite funny to see the now-seventy-year-old Elton wearing some of the more flamboyant outfits from his earlier career.

Channing Tatum, as Statesman agent Tequila, gets surprisingly little screen time, despite being front and centre in the publicity campaign, but he makes the most of what he’s given and he’s clearly being set up as a major player for a third movie.   Instead, Pedro Pascal’s Whiskey gets the majority of the action as he accompanies Eggsy into action and he’s very effective, albeit in an intentionally rather stereotypical role.   Jeff Bridges brings his by-now-perfected cool older dude act out as Statesmen leader Champagne and Halle Berry works nicely opposite Mark Strong as Ginger Ale, the Statesmen’s technical expert.    And Bruce Greenwood puts in an entertainingly slimy turn as a complete self-centred git of a US President, which does make you wonder if Matthew Vaughn had some sort of premonition or something.

The first movie had a number of standout action sequences and the sequel certainly doesn’t drop the ball on that front.   Vaughn has handily proved by now that he possesses a genuine flair for directing action and he does so again here, with the opening fight in a taxi and the final assault on Poppy’s 50s chic / Cambodian temple base as standouts.

In the end, as previously noted, Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t entirely live up to the original, being somewhat hampered by an extended run time that it doesn’t really require.   Fortunately, a brief sag in the middle doesn’t detract from the fact that, on most levels, the film is great fun, and really leaves you wanting to know where Vaughn plans to take things next.    Fortunately, with the movie doing solid box office around the globe, a third movie is likely assured, and I’m keen to see it.